Trial Judge’s Unavailability to Cure Deficient Pa. R.A.P. 1925 Opinion in Non-Jury Case – Appropriate Role of Appellate Court; Scope and Standard of Review of Bench Ruling Where Trial Court Opinion Inadequate
Plaintiff contracted for custom built home at a cost of approximately $2 million; after taking possession in 2000 plaintiff discovered defects in installation of windows and sued and then settled with subcontractor Hurd; thereafter other defects appeared and plaintiff sued other contractors who joined Hurd; case ultimately went to bench trial in which trial judge ruled for plaintiff, resulting in verdict in excess of $700,000. However, trial judge’s disposition of post-trial motions was cursory and his Pa. R.A.P. 1925 opinion was summary in nature, and provided no ruling on liability of Hurd for joinder claim. Superior Court remanded for new opinion addressing all issues but was advised that trial judge had since retired and no other judge on the court had sufficient knowledge to author the requested opinion. Superior Court vacated judgment and remanded for new trial, reasoning:
Because the trial judge failed to explain his decision throughout this case and is no longer on the bench to give us the information necessary for our review, the record remains insufficient for us to address Appellants’ claims. Specifically, we cannot determine (1) which of [Plaintiff’s] claims warranted relief; (2) what type of damages the court awarded [Plaintiff]; (3) the amount of each type of damages awarded [Plaintiff]; (4) whether the court ruled in favor or against [other contractors] on their cross-claim against Hurd Millwork; and (5) the reasons for the court’s general denial of [other contractors’] motion for post-trial relief. Therefore, the best resolution of this appeal is to vacate the judgment and remand for a new trial on liability and damages. Accordingly, we vacate and remand for further proceedings.
The Supreme Court has granted allocatur to address the following issues, rephrased for clarity as follows:
(1) What is the proper role of an appellate court in reviewing a non-jury decision where it deems the Pa.R.A.P. 1925(a) opinion inadequate but the trial judge is no longer available to provide a supplemental opinion?
(2) If the appellate court is required to reach the merits of the trial court’s decision, what are the appropriate scope and standard of review?